Bright girls less likely to want to study maths and physics at A-level than bright boys

04 September 2010

The largest ever investigation analysing whether teenagers want to take maths or physics in the sixth form has found that even high-ability, highly motivated girls are less likely than boys to want to persist with the subjects beyond the age of 16.

Researchers from the Institute of Education, London, who surveyed 10,355 14- and 15-year-olds in 113 schools across England found that girls were less likely to want to take maths and physics at A-level and through other post-16 qualifications, even when compared to boys with similar background characteristics.

Three times as many boys as girls said they strongly agreed with the idea of taking physics beyond the age of 16, while for maths, boys were 1.5 times more likely to say this was the case.

The academics behind the three year study, being presented at the British Educational Research Association's annual conference today (Saturday September 4), admitted that it was still not clear what schools should do to counteract this "male-orientation" towards take-up.

The findings are likely to be seized upon in the debate about raising participation levels in subjects which are widely seen as vital both for the UK's future economic prosperity and for individual students in their future careers.

The researchers surveyed 5,321 pupils on their intention to study maths beyond the age of 16. Asked if they wanted to study the subject after their GCSEs some 22 per cent of boys "strongly agreed" that they did, while 70 per cent agreed at least slightly.

The comparable figures for girls were 15 per cent agreeing strongly and 59 per cent at least slightly. Some nine per cent of boys strongly disagreed with the idea of post-16 maths study, compared to 13 per cent of girls.

They asked the same question of 5,034 pupils for physics. Only 5 per cent of girls strongly agreed with the idea of pursuing the subject post-16, compared to 13 per cent of boys. Some 52 per cent of boys agreed at least slightly, compared to 33 per cent of girls. Only 18 per cent of boys disagreed strongly with the idea of post-16 physics study, compared to 25 per cent of girls.

The academics then explored whether the differences might have been explained by pupils' results in tests at Key Stage 2, by psychological factors such as how good they thought they were at the subjects, or by how good their schools' results were.

However, none of these factors explained the apparent reluctance of girls to persevere with the subjects. Even when comparing girls of similar prior achievement and belief in their own ability to boys, males were more likely to want to study maths and physics. Tamjid Mujtaba, the lead researcher, says: "This is really important. All other things being equal, girls are less likely to intend to go on to study the subjects than boys. These do seem to be seen as male-oriented subjects.

"We do not know why. We think it is to do with socialisation processes, both in and out of school, but it will need to be investigated further."

The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, also found that pupils who described themselves as extroverts were less likely to want to study physics than those who did not – although this was not the case for maths – and that schools with teachers who said they attended a lot of meetings, rather than concentrating on classroom teaching, had lower proportions of pupils saying they wanted to study physics post-16.

A series of papers on the Understanding Participation rates in post-16 Mathematics And Physics (UPMAP) project are being presented by Tamjid Mujtaba, Celia Hoyles, Michael Reiss, Bijan Riazi-Farzad, Fani Stylianidou, Shirley Simon and Melissa Rodd (all of the Institute of Education, University of London) at BERA today (Saturday September 4).

Notes for editors:
1 The researchers surveyed 10,355 students in 113 secondary schools in England. The sample was drawn, on average, from schools with higher-than average post-16 participation rates for the two subjects because the researchers wanted to find out what engages pupils in maths and physics. The research also includes in-depth qualitative research with 12 schools.
2 Participation rates for maths and physics A-level show stark differences between take-up between boys and girls. Some 79 per cent of UK entries for physics A-level in 2010 were from boys, while the corresponding figure for maths A-level was 59 per cent. Source: Joint Council for Qualifications.